However, I left the recent Vorticists exhibition feeling that I was missing something, and it's difficult to identify exactly what the gap was, as this was an interesting and well-constructed show. Perhaps it was simply a lack of historical context in the exhibition itself, which was covered in greater detail in the catalogue.
Certainly in this case, context is all. The Vorticists may have been a largely British art movement, but they were entirely of their time and could not exist without the impact of cubism, futurism or the various strands of early 20th Century modernism. At the exhibition itself these themes were hinted at, but it needed the catalogue to fill in the background detail. I hope this doesn't presage a trend towards less information being on display in the exhibition hall itself.
|Newcastle c1913 |
by Edward Wadsworth
Johanna and Leslie Garfield Collection
However, the most powerful work on display for me was the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. Both were deeply influenced by native sculpture reaching Europe from Africa and the Pacific Islands, and the way in which this was starting to be used by Picasso, Modigliani and others. Epstein was never formally part of the Vorticist group, although he did exhibit with them. The Rock Drill that confronts you when you enter the exhibition encapsulates the Vorticist aesthetic: modern, angular, aggressive and sexual. Meanwhile, Gaudier-Brzeska's Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound represents the High Priest of modernism as monumental, instantly recognisable, and decidedly phallic.
Vorticism's philosophy was encapsulated in the periodical Blast, only two issues of which were produced. It is undoubtedly Wyndham-Lewis's creation, pretentious, provocative and wilfully contrarian. The exhibition attempts - rightly - to put Blast centre-stage, but it is difficult to appreciate a wordy production in such a context. It is obvious that much effort has been made to display Blast's philopsophical, literary and artistic aspects in a coherent manner.
Ultimately, the Vorticists rage against the modern world was subsumed in the First World War. Their posturing appeared irrelevant in the context of the slaughter of the trenches. Wyndham Lewis and Wadsworth joined up and fought with distinction in the war, whilst Gaudier-Brzeska's death at the Front is commemorated in the second issue of Blast. Ultimately, the Vorticists were too derivative - and, let's be honest, not talented enough - to make a significant impact beyond British shores. Their art took from Cubism, their philosophy from Futurism and the pot-pourri of modernist groups trying to understand the new century. This exhibition is a worthwhile attempt to place them in their proper context.